Sarah Thompson was a Project Manager for Bangladesh at WFDD from 2020 to May 2022. She has a bachelor’s degree in Sociology and Gender Studies from Roanoke College and a master’s degree in International Development with Migration from the University of Kent's Brussels School of International Studies. Prior to joining the WFDD team, Sarah worked in the education and NGO space in both China and Cambodia and recently at Georgetown’s Institute for Reproductive Health focusing on family planning interventions in Nepal. Sarah has a strong interest in the intersection of religion, development, and gender equity in South Asia.
After a full year of living with COVID-19 pandemic, there are intensive reflections about its serious repercussions for women and girls. For many women, increased care work, emotional labor, loss of jobs and schooling, and an uptick in various forms of gender-based violence (GBV) have added to the daily challenges they face pretty much everywhere around the world. Furthermore, experts fear that women will likely feel the disruptive effects of the pandemic for years to come.
Reports from nearly every region of the world indicate that violence has increased against women. To a degree this was predictable and predicted, because such violence historically tends to increase during a crisis. Our team working on the Bangladesh: Religious Dimensions of Development and Social Cohesion project at the World Faiths Development Dialogue (WFDD) has been researching the gendered effects of COVID-19 and its religious linkages since spring 2020. Through literature reviews and qualitative interviews conducted, virtually, with NGOs and faith-inspired organizations (FIOs), we have learned detailed stories of the horrors women and girls face in Bangladesh. These include rising levels of domestic violence, rape, and child marriage. Economic and social unrest paired with lockdown measures can mean women are locked in with their abusers or frustrations are taken out on them through their partners or relatives. While these problems persisted in Bangladesh before the pandemic, they have been exacerbated, and survivors find it even more difficult to pursue justice due to closed or backlogged courts and impunity for the attackers.
Economic and social unrest paired with lockdown measures can mean women are locked in with their abusers.
BRAC University’s Human Rights and Legal Services program has documented a nearly 70% increase in reported incidents of all forms of GBV against women and girls in spring 2020, compared to the year before. UN Women and UNFPA recently released a report on data analytics for search terms in various Asian countries during the pandemic and found that in Bangladesh, the top search queries were linked to the “definition of domestic violence,” and other types of abuse such as “emotional,” “mental,” and “abuse in relationships.” They also found that 33% of social media posts referenced religion when people gave opinions on GBV linked to religious beliefs and harmful cultural practices and a rise in misogynistic comments from men on GBV-related advocacy posts.
Beginning in September and October 2020, women have taken to the streets in large numbers to protest the pattern of horrific rapes and inadequate responses from the police and courts. The protests were initially sparked by a series of public gang rapes and filmed assaults circulating the internet for weeks before being taken down. The courts set the death penalty as the maximum punishment for rape in hopes of satisfying activists and protestors, but many legal advocates and faith leaders argued that execution is neither a deterrent for sexual violence nor a humane punishment. Many activists and organizations instead asked for better policies that held perpetrators accountable and that would deliver swift justice and assistance to the survivors.
Beginning in September and October 2020, women have taken to the streets in large numbers to protest the pattern of horrific rapes and inadequate responses from the police and courts.
In seeking meaningful action, it is vital to recall the ways in which some faith communities and leaders have perpetuated gender inequality, including with some forms of violence seemingly sanctioned through scripture or silence. Practically all major world faiths have deeply rooted patriarchal foundations, and it is important to acknowledge this to move forward and work for concrete and progressive solutions. One goal is to identify practical ways in which faith leaders can be more proactively engaged as women’s advocates or by speaking out against GBV in their communities, thus helping to foster policy change.
Government officials, policymakers, large development institutions, and NGOs rarely offer actionable ways for faith leaders and FIOs to be actively engaged in their work to combat complex problems like GBV. Engaging faith leaders and FIOs both during and after the pandemic should take past reticence into account and look for new ways to foster dialogue and action to support women and young girls. Using religious scholars and leaders to invoke specific scriptures that encourage the social and economic involvement and rights of women and girls could be helpful to achieve this goal. As an example, both the Asia Foundation and Islamic Relief have used this method in the past, and it appears to have met with success.
Engaging faith leaders and FIOs during and after the pandemic should take past reticence into account and look for new ways to support women and young girls.
Mobilizing large factions of society to respond to and prevent the horrific patterns of rising GBV can only be truly successful through collaboration with faith communities, particularly in countries with high levels of religiosity like Bangladesh. The global pandemic offers an important inflection point to explore new ways to galvanize faith leaders and their communities in progressive directions that could lead to increased human development and a more flourishing society for women and men.
To learn more about the rise of gender-based violence in Bangladesh during the COVID-19 pandemic, please see the WFDD policy brief on “A Crisis of Rape in Bangladesh: Opportunities for Faith Engagement,” published in February 2021.